Cape Town - Proteas all-rounder Ryan McLaren is almost certainly out of the second Test against Australia in Port Elizabeth starting on Thursday – as a result of the blow to the head he suffered while batting in the first Test on Saturday.
McLaren was struck on the helmet by Australian paceman Mitchell Johnson, causing bleeding behind his right ear.
The full extent of the injury is unclear at this stage, but Proteas manager and doctor Mohammed Moosajee will conduct further tests today (Tuesday) to see if the man who replaced the retired Jacques Kallis will be fit to play at St George’s Park.
The news came shortly after the national team arrived in Port Elizabeth on Monday to start preparations for the second of three Tests.
The selectors were already considering making a change to the team, and McLaren’s absence provides them with an opportunity to reconsider their tactics for taking on the rampant touring side.
The chief options are to replace McLaren with a batsman or an all-rounder similar to himself. The selectors were already seriously considering playing an extra batsman in Port Elizabeth before the situation with McLaren’s injury was known.
If they go that route, regular squad member Dean Elgar will probably play.
Selection convener Andrew Hudson said following the Proteas 281-run defeat on Saturday: “I don’t think we anticipated the unevenness in Centurion.
“There (has been) debate around playing an extra batter. It just means reopening those debates.
“Australia went in batting-heavy, relying on their three seamers and their spinner, which they did successfully.”
South Africa made 206 in their first innings and 200 in their second, as only AB de Villiers (91 and 48) was able to progress past 35 in two attempts.
Discounting the efforts of De Villiers, the top six Proteas batsmen scored 57 runs in the first innings and 68 in the second.
“We need to consider putting in a batter at seven. Then we can go in with the three quicks and Robbie P (Peterson).
“We need to look at our number seven position, and decide whether it’s the all-rounder or playing a spinner. It’s back to the dilemma of trying to get a balanced squad in Port Elizabeth,” he said.
If the selectors decide to go with a like-for-like replacement for McLaren, the likely choice would be Wayne Parnell.
A third possibility, although less likely, is that Elgar is picked as a seventh batsman, Parnell is chosen as a fourth seamer option, and slow left-armer Peterson misses out.
This would mean tackling a key match without a recognised spinner in Port Elizabeth, a traditionally slow wicket offering help to spinners.
Proteas assistant coach Adrian Birrell commented: “There is concern; there is hurt, but certainly a determination to set things straight. We know how important this match is. We want to go to Cape Town all square, but we have to play good cricket and start well.
“We need to start better and put them under pressure, and reverse the pressure that was placed on us. Johnson is a threat and we need to combat that,” Birrell added.
If the term “combat” used by Birrell sounds a bit like warfare, the 53-year-old is not far wrong as the lethal left-arm Australian fast bowler hurls down 150km/h-plus missiles that not only intend to dismiss, but also cause severe bodily harm.
Facing Johnson is a test of character, as much as one of technique, because “the fear factor” always has to be considered. For years South African batsmen have had the comfort of watching Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel badger the opposition, but they are the ones who are now in the firing line.
De Villiers provided evidence in Centurion that Johnson is but a human and not a Spartacus-type gladiator that destroys everything in his path.
“We can take a lot of heart from AB’s performances. Hopefully others can follow suit. We have the batsmen who can do that, and obviously we have a couple of days to prepare well and hopefully then start on the right foot,” Birrell said.
A factor that could negate Johnson’s influence is the nature of the St George’s Park pitch. Historically it has been a slow surface, offering the spinners some purchase as the game wears on. It should not have the pace or bounce that was on offer at Centurion last week, with the faster bowlers expected to utilise their skills instead of relying on raw pace.